Monday, November 28, 2016

Let Him Go

“Swilley, you can’t march,” said the Seabee drill instructor.

“I know it,” he replied, but got by without that difficult skill, because he was a great craftsman, taking carpentry to the level of art. The Seabees were lucky to have him and they knew it. After World War II, Loy Swilley told many stories of wartime activities down in “them islands,” off New Zealand, where he and his crew built many needful structures for airfields. He told of narrow scrapes with enemy bombs and strafing.

When the war was over, he heard from a fellow El Dorado Seabee that his old girlfriend’s husband had died. Loy was an older Seabee, having gone into the service at almost 40 after a painful divorce. That old girlfriend was my mother, Pearl. I was six when he came courting. Mother was pregnant with me when my father died. My brother Curtis was 5 when our father died and 11 when Loy came courting. Mother thought Loy was a door-to-door salesman. Not realizing he had come courting, after about an hour, she asked what he did for a living. “I drive nails,” he replied and Mother realized he intended to rekindle what had started in high school. Rekindle it did.

When Mother told us of her intent to marry him, Curtis was not happy, having known his real father. I was tickled because I felt uncomfortable explaining the absence of a father to my friends. I said, “I am going to call him Daddy.” Curtis said he was going to call him Pop and that I had better use that name for him as well. He said it firmly. So, Pop it was. Later we found out that he did not care for that designation since the younger Seabees in his unit called him that, but he never complained about it.

Curtis kept his distance but I developed a jocular relationship with him. I outgrew Pop very rapidly. Once when we went to the barbershop together, the barber said, “You did good on that one, Swilley.” Pop merely replied, “Yep, he is a big one.” I liked that response very much. I passed for anomalous blood kin from then on.

As to the jocularity we developed, it started when his fellow carpenters would call the house asking for Bug. That was his nickname because of the rapid way he traversed the job sites. I would yell out, “Telephone, Bug!” And soon I started calling him that on a regular basis. He grinned at it, so I continued the appellation. In response, he called me Kid. Soon, I began to return that to him, referring to him as Kid. So, he answered, whether I called him Bug or Kid.

Another name he had for me was Wart, and sometimes You Bloomin’ Blasted Wart. I guess I earned that designation by being more present in his and Mother’s lives that he preferred. When I told them I was going into the service, Mother did not want me to do that and got emotional. Pop said three words that settled it and made all the difference in my life, “Let him go.” He meant that in more than one sense.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Thankful for the Three D's

Life is like paddling a canoe through rapids, still water, crooks and eddies on a winding river like the Cossatot. We only see a piece of the river at a time; but above it, say in a forestry helicopter, the whole trip is apparent. In my canoe journey, I am thankful for the pilot in the helicopter and the three “D’s”—namely, dovetailing, direction and destination.

You have noticed, I am sure, that many circumstances of life dovetail in the most intricate ways. It is as if some great intelligent designer arranged well-positioned points of intersection in often unlikely ways. For example, think back to the moments you met and developed relationships with people who have turned out to be essential companions in your earthly journey. Was there something odd or unusual about the meetings? Could you just as easily have not been there when the individuals emerged? That’s what I mean—we see an enigmatic and well-timed event planner behind our relationships. The same is true of significant events of our lives. Ponder the way you came into your profession, your livelihood, your avocations and, yes, even your tastes. There is, in short, a clandestine purpose that gets clarified systematically in a universal system of dovetailing that often seems random but, upon reflection, is methodical. Forrest Gump pointed out at Jenny’s grave that life seems both random and planned and Hamlet of Denmark contended that there is method in this madness. Pondering the ostensibly arbitrary motions of the weirdly spiraling DNA ladder, our gratitude is so great that we want to hug the Danish prince and the Alabama shrimper.

As to direction in life, that same intelligent design seems to be at work. Like everyone I know, I have gone through many periods of “what ifs” and “if onlys.” Not many days pass that don’t contain some speculation of, “Wish I’d said that,” or “What if I had just walked away.” But there is a North Star pull that we recognize only in retrospect, a road sign that was not there as we passed it, but clearly there in the rear-view mirror. Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out that all things take on a pleasing form in the eyes of memory—maybe that is why, we feel aimless in the moment but see the design looking back, that is, after we get to where we were going—you know, destination.

Does anyone ever arrive? Are we not continually striving rather than arriving? I remember Peggy Lee’s haunting song, “Is that all there is?” It is a song about this very thing. When we achieve some goal, be in graduation or retirement, there is something that compels us to move on to other goals. The phrase “You’ve got it made” is meaningless. In the Christian worldview, for example, some believe that the salvation experience is all there is to the Christian walk. Nope. Because Christians recognize the great cost paid for salvation, we are compelled to live a life motivated by awareness of the price paid, thus becoming self-sacrificial as well.

So, I am deeply grateful for the three “D’s” of life, for all the enigmatic but wondrous dovetailing that continues to offer new adventures, for the direction that was dim as I walked the road but crystal clear in retrospect and for the destination planned for me, a greater place than ever entered the mind of man. There is a river. There is also a pilot above it who understands and influences the whole trip.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Belly Landing

I called the paper in Atlanta and asked to speak to the wise old man on Veteran’s Day. I went through several employees and finally spoke to a copy editor who said, “He left a note for Charles telling him the paper was tending towards propaganda and he quit.” I then called Bright Leaf to see if he had returned there but he had not. I tried a couple of other numbers from the past with no luck and just as I was calling my last number, he drove up in an Elio test car he got from the founder down in Shreveport.

“I have been looking for you, sir.”

“I quit the paper. Journalism is not my gig any more. I have my pension, you know. How do you like my ride?”

“That is so cool. How did you get one so early?”

“Connections, Dan, connections. Listen, Dan, I know we differ deeply on political matters but I just want to say three things and then we can go on to other topics. First, it is what it is. Second, it is not what it is not. And, finally, it will not be what you anticipate.”

My instinct was to go for more specifics and detail, but I remembered what a rhetorically powerful contender the wise old man is, so I kept my peace (such as it was). I invited my old friend in and my wife greeted him warmly and offered a bowl of chili, which he accepted. We had a leisurely lunch and, since it was Veteran’s Day, I brought up our gratitude for his valiant service as a B-17 pilot in World War II.

“Dan, did I ever tell you about how we got shot up and I was wounded in both arms and couldn’t fly?”

“I do not recall that story.”

“Well, flak had already taken out one of our engines and the ship took a bad one in the landing gear. Then the fighters came when we lost altitude and I caught shrapnel in both shoulders and could not fly her. Freddy, my co-pilot was unconscious and everyone else was busy, so I had Barry the bombardier come take the controls. He was a brooding boy from Milwaukee and he was terrified. I was in and out of consciousness but managed to talk him to within sight of our base in Italy. He freaked out when I had him power down. He thought we were going to fall out of the sky. I said, ‘No, Barry, we are fine. It just feels like we are too slow. Nose her down, come on, boy.’ Just as I feared, the landing gear was blown. A belly landing is never easy, even for an experienced pilot, but I talked Barry down until he just froze up. I leaned way back and took the controls with my feet and plopped her down. We skidded and blew sparks all the way to beyond the asphalt. I put Barry in for a medal, but he never received it. They patched me up and sent me out in another airplane not long after that wreck.”

“Wow,” I said, stirring shredded cheddar into my chili. “What an experience.”

“Yep. If you went on a mission as an atheist, you came back believing, or wanting to anyway. If you went as a hawk you came back a dove. If you went an ideologue, you came back practical. If you went feeling coerced, you came back proud to be an American. So many did not come back, Dan. So many.”

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Crook at the Head of the Staff

Ridest thou life out? Art thou filled with ennui? Dost thou wish to drop out of the race? Hopest thou all will be well if thou withdraweth in quietness and rest? Nay. Many are tired but few are utterly exhausted. What hast thou in thy hand? Is it not a weak and malformed shepherd’s staff? Thou knowest thou art being conformed to the image of thy great shepherd. Thou hast read it in the 13th chapter of Hebrews and the eighth chapter of Romans. Turnest thou that staff bottom-side-uppards. There. It is a “J”. It standeth not for Jay-Z. Nor standeth it for J-Lo. Yea, thou knowest the initial of thy great shepherd. Therefore, useth thou that staff as the shepherd doth: he rescueth, he urgest along and he protecteth the sheep withal.

Verily, when thy great shepherd seest a lamb feebly trying to arise from having fallen over the rim of a cliff, the shepherd reachest down with the crooked end of his staff to lift the lamb back into the fold. In like manner, thou, when thou seest a fellow human going over the cliff of strong drink, ground-up potions, or substances never intended for such abuse, or falling out of a relationship because of poor communication, reachest thou out with thy staff of friendship, compassion, understanding, gentleness and sobriety to bring the wanderer back into the fold where there will be joy unspeakable amongst the sheep.

Likewise, observe how thy great shepherd urgest lambs and sheep along with the other end of the staff. He encourageth the recalcitrant and dilatory to rejoin the journey. So thou, as thou are being conformed to the image of thy great shepherd, urge thou those who giveth up not to do so, but to press on toward the high calling wherewith they are called. Yea, the shepherd resteth while the sheep rest, but moveth forward at his will. Encourage those who wish to drop out to continue. Rest only when thy shepherd resteth.

Hast thou not noted how thy great shepherd fiercely figheth the lion and the bear with the shepherd’s staff? Behold, he jabbeth, beateth, clobbereth, poketh and runneth the predator off. Thou, then, must do warfare on behalf of thy fellow troubled humans. In Adam’s fall we sinned all, including thou; and yet thou art called to heal thyself as well as thy fellowman. When addiction cometh with insatiable hunger, thou must whomp it up beside its multiple heads with thy staff. When quarreling cometh, thou must speak a kind word and lead by thine own benign example. When hate cometh, thou must love, thereby chasing the untoward away. SELAH.

So that, when thou hast rescued the perishing, encouraged the downtrodden and fought for those who err from the straight path, then thou wilt begin to resemble that great shepherd of the sheep, in whose heavenly flock thou wilt spend eternity—in the company of those thou undershepherded. Remember, thou thyself hast been shepherded and desire to remain in the flock.

Monday, October 31, 2016



I don’t recall much about my days as a boy scout but I do remember quoting the “oath” often. One part of it that still stands out to me is the phrase, “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.” I am not sure any of us in my troop knew what honor meant at that time. I think I assumed it meant that I was serious about God and country. Now, perhaps I have a more mature understanding of the concept.

Honor means integrity in beliefs and actions. In other words, when we act with honor, our actions line up with our beliefs. There is a section of scripture in James that admonishes people to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. That’s it: allowing our inmost convictions to inform our actions and words consistently, regardless of the circumstances. So, honorable people live lives not necessarily to please others but to align with inalterable principles. Thus, I believe that to be honorable, we must have a sense of the absolute, a sense of Truth underlying all that can be known and experienced.

One notable American writer of the 20th Century, William Faulkner, had, in his art at least, a sense of the absolute that registered in his aesthetics as “the old verities of the human heart.” He even went so far as to list those old truths of the heart as love, honor, pride, sacrifice, pity--you know, those attributes that set us humans apart from other creatures on the planet. Here is a section of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech that is to the point: “[A writer] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

Even though the Mississippi genius was writing specifically about the art of storytelling, it seems to me that his admonition fits other aspirant activities as well. A politician, for example, deeply motivated by these principles would not alter views for expediency, right? Similarly, leaders who feel compassion for those they lead will not take chances on damaging their followers in any way. In fact, I believe true leadership sometimes calls for self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.

Self-sacrifice leads to my final point about honor. Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch told Scout that one must walk around in someone else’s skin in learning to be merciful and just. Charles Chestnut’s powerful tale “Mars Jeem’s Nightmare” is about a plantation owner who is miraculously transformed into a slave on his own plantation, thus learning what it means to honor others. Could it be that true honor is defined by the Golden Rule? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Monday, October 24, 2016

What's Wrong with Bicycling?

Bicycles have been important my whole life, especially from the time I was seven. Mother and Pop bought me a rebuilt one for my birthday, a hybrid, from a man in El Dorado whose place of business was advertised by reconstituted Cities Service sign. It read in awkward lettering: I fix Victrolas and Bicycles. (I later got to know that old man. He told stories about his early “boom town” days in such a way as to make me see pictures in my head. He was a true narrative artist.)

Because I was a growing boy, Mother and Pop went ahead and got a 26-inch bike with wide handlebars that stretched a kid’s arms out significantly. My two older brothers taught me how to ride it by pushing me off down a major hill and yelling, “Ride, Danny, Ride.” That was similar to the way they taught swimming as well, throwing me into the deep, yelling, “Swim, Danny, Swim.” Great teachers, right? Well, it worked on both accounts. The best education is self-education. Or, as country comedian Dave Garner used to say, “It is always best to self-educate you own self.”

I kept on cycling as I grew to maturity. My first job, in fact, was that of bicycle messenger for Western Union. I wore out two bicycles and several sets of tires doing that. During and for a while after the military, I abandoned that avocation, but after marriage I managed to procure and maintain a good bicycle. And, when I became a professor and rode my bicycle back and forth to work, it was considered a non-blameworthy eccentricity by students and faculty alike.

Once when my nephew was visiting, I happened to have two bicycles and invited him to go on a ride with me. Gliding through the college farm road, we came upon a man cutting up a tree that had been hit by lightning. He admired our bicycles and mentioned the he was an avid cyclist. It was the college archeologist and after that encounter, I started riding daily with him, receiving advice as to cycling equipment from him. He subscribed to the cycling magazines and eventually, so did I. We joined the Arkansas Bicycle Club and put in many miles riding with that group.

Now that I am approaching the threshold of old age, I have a mountain bike, not a racer. It is well-equipped with lighting, reflectors, a speedometer, a tool kit, a frame pump and other needful accouterments. I do not ride long distances any more, but there are some good hills around here for aerobic fitness. I especially like going downhill—I mean on a bicycle.

There is something good about cycling that is hard to define. Maybe that “something” is keeping rhythm while at rest. You know, sitting, yet exerting. Leaning forward. Feeling the wind in your face. Sneaking up on deer. Outwitting dogs. Imagining what people are thinking, such as, look at that old dude on a bicycle. What’s wrong with him.

I often wonder that myself and have concluded nothing. Intentional ambiguity.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Ordination

Thirty years ago, a friend of mine was to be ordained. He asked me to be a presenter at the ceremony and to read the Old Testament lesson for the day. I humbly accepted the invitation. He told me I should don my academic robe for the event, explaining that it was canonically correct to wear academic regalia in formal church services, even if it was not acceptable to be clad in ecclesiastical garb in academic convocations. So, I got out my robe and Ph. D. hood and tidied them up for the event.

When the great day came, I showed up at the appointed place, a beautifully ornate sanctuary in a large city, looking like a Supreme Court judge. The processional was long and ostentatious, the incense was pungent and the organ blared in full tremolo. I read my passage from Isaiah, emphasizing the part that says, “Here am I, send me,” from the lectern, concluding my contribution with the designated words, “Here endeth the reading.”

Then came the Gospel reading by my honored friend himself and then the sermon by a reverend professor from a New York seminary. I remember his remarks almost verbatim, notwithstanding the lapse of three decades. He said:

“Right Reverend Sir, reverend clergy, friends and relatives of the ordinand, fellow followers of Our Lord, ladies and gentlemen, I bring greetings from my colleagues on the seminary faculty and from the students studying there.

“When I was a student in that very seminary,” he went on, “I had a classmate from Texas I could not stand to be around. His accent was so very thick. He said “hep” for “help” and “wekom” for “welcome.” There was not an “L” in his mouth. And he had other objectionable speech patterns as well. I tried to avoid this Texan as much as possible.”

Since I was seated on the platform, I could see the faces of those gathered for the event, all Southern people, some Texans, and I wondered where that minister thought he was. He continued undaunted:

“I decided in my heart I never would go to Texas if I could avoid it. But, when this graduate of our seminary to be ordained here today asked me to come down here to deliver the sermon, I did not know what was going to happen. I got on the airplane at JFK and changed planes in Memphis to come to Little Rock. The weather was terrible at Memphis and worsened as we approached Little Rock. The plane was rocking and bouncing and lightning was flashing all around us. The pilot came on the p.a. system and said we were diverting to Dallas-Ft. Worth. Oh, my, I thought. This is terrible. But when we drew near to Texas, the weather cleared, the flight smoothed out. The Dallas-Ft. Worth airport came into view. IT WAS A WEKOM SITE, SO HEP ME.”

Then, he went on to preach a beautiful sermon. I thought that was a great attention-getter and a wonderful way to get into a sermon by shedding all semblance to the Pharisee.